St. Louis Art Capsules

Jessica Baran encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Newly Reviewed
BIRDHOUSEINCATTREE During his recent winter residency at Boots Contemporary Art Space, German artist Wilhelm Neußer painted this suite of images, which explores the peculiarity of birdhouses, cat condos and other human dwelling spaces miniaturized for animals. The project furthers his interest in domestic architecture and its way of subtly dictating our interaction with the world — setting limits (walls), framing perspective (windows), organizing movement (the layout of interiors, the segregation of activities to discrete rooms). In these red-saturated canvases, the small lofted structures of, say, birdhouses, sit firmly in trees or pile up in a room, but just as resolutely dissolve into an ambiguous palimpsest of painted textures. A candy-striped lawn umbrella, a leafless branch — they read clearly at the same moment they slip fluidly into diamond patterns, arbitrary stripes or rough underlayers of red. The tension between a firm sense of place and dreamlike disorientation — where one's trust in space is always on the brink of being subverted — recalls de Chirico but with less illustrative symbolism. Rather, the logic of these images, despite their occasional structure, is purely painterly, portraying an abstraction of life, and an orderly strain in animal impulses. Through March 31, at Boots Contemporary Art Space, 2307 Cherokee Street; 314-773-2281 or www.bootsart.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed. and Sat. and by appointment.

In the Manner of Smoke Tiny ceramic cashews, granola and raisins; a community bulletin billboard filled with flyers; a plug-in Zen water garden; canvas shoulder bag; piles of emptied Morningstar and WestSoy products — all the signs betray that a leftist/vegetarian/animal-rights activist was here in this wonderfully strange installation by Pittsburgh artist Jerstin Crosby. Coop/Co-op, a gritty, ad-hoc studio of sorts that dominates the gallery, houses these clever items that aptly slip between meticulous handicraft and punk irreverence; the "brick" walls of the space are a screen-printed texture, while a photograph pinned to the wall portrays the artist, covered in the brick print and squatting in front of a (real) brick façade. Then, of course, there's the video montage of a goth restaging of Seinfeld, in which the action revolves not around Upper West Side neuroses but rather the (perhaps equally absurd) hair-splitting of what comprises the truly politically correct. For all of the direct allusions, this is a highly atmospheric exhibit, which is what makes it so trenchantly intelligent: The humor is never mudslinging, the critique not prescriptive. This is the work of a sympathizer, recognizing, with wry affection, the oddity and illogic of beliefs. The artist's billboard sign, above the gallery, sums it up: "You Cannot Control What Is Wild." Through March 20 at Good Citizen Gallery, 2247 Gravois Avenue; 314-348-4587 or www.goodcitizenstl.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.

Ongoing
Allison Smith: Needlework Hand-sewn replicas of gas masks and other forms of head coverings worn in military, terrorist or personal crisis are photographed in disconcertingly straightforward and unsentimental images. The rough fabric textures and imprecise stitchwork — misaligned eyeholes, rendering mouths and head shapes amorphous — create a tension between the intimately handmade and brutally subjugating. Parachutes, printed with the images of masks, hover throughout the gallery with cloudlike buoyancy. They offset the stifling effect of the photographed objects and create yet another elegant disjunction — as though conflict can be lighter than air. Through April 19 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth & Skinker boulevards (on the campus of Washington University); 314-935-4523 (www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu). Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (closed Tue., open till 8 p.m. Fri.).

Buzz Spector: Shelf Life This select survey of eleven years' work by notable conceptual artist, writer and educator Buzz Spector is an abridged chronicle of a lifelong obsession with books and their elusive promise of conferring, to any willing reader, the dream of encyclopedic knowledge. Piles of books from the artist's capacious library are photographed in curated and sculpted groups: In Poiesis, the thin volumes that comprise poetry are stacked, with their spines obscured, into the loose shape of a chapel. Piles of canonical novels, pushed forward or receding out-of-focus according to preference, are stacked before Spector himself, suggesting his inclusion amid the tradition of grand personal narratives. In other works on paper, quotes by French theorists Roland Barthes or Guy Debord appear stitched in yarn in the kind of cursive or lowercase scrawl learned in elementary school. Does "high literature" need to be spelled out in the simplest of terms, and if so, to whom? Whether this work translates as playfully generous and illuminating or generalizing and self-reflexive may very well depend on the viewer. Through March 6 at Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-3030 or www.brunodavidgallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. on the first Sun. of every month and by appointment.

Fuzzy Logic A plush log fire, a patched-together picnic (ground, plaid blanket and foodstuffs all made of cloth), fuzzy Prozac pills, a cross-stitched portrait of a character from Freaks and Geeks — all of this and more make up this select survey of handicraft as fine art. Breaking down gender roles and other traditional associations with craft, curator Audrey Mast collected work by national artists that exploits the contradictions elicited when, say, a painterly gesture is woven or a sculpture is stuffed. Claes Oldenburg's '60s-era soft sculptures come to mind — not merely in their fabric-based dilapidation but also in their way of re-creating everyday items in new scales, materials and material behaviors. Here Oldenburg's playfully perverse way of reframing pop-cultural stock is freshened with contemporary referents and a closer focus on process. But the project remains essentially the same: making one wonder what a contemporary revival of craft and pop-art impulses means. Through March 13 at the Des Lee Gallery, 1627 Washington Avenue (University Lofts Building); 314-621-8735 or www.desleegallery.com. Hours: 1-6 p.m. Wed., Fri.-Sat.

Mark Newport: Self-Made Man Upending familiar caricatures from superpowers, spinsters and Mr. Moms to high and low art, this exhibit of limp, knitted comic-book-hero costumes marks the definitive end of the Bold Man of Action. Superman, Batman — they're all here, hanging like molted skins or discarded fruit rinds. While meticulously handcrafted, this collection of full-body woolens, emptied of form, is less suggestive of self-sufficiency than gentle dependency — that precious, humble concession necessary for maintaining family structure. Newport, then — seen in a video knitting (and wearing knitted suit) — could be super-normal, at ultimate peace with his domesticated role. The work speaks more to the truer root of the comic-book mythos, which was not about brawny power but the condition of being a misfit — socially dispossessed, precocious but alienated, scarred by trauma and hell-bent on being needed. In the loose musculature, flaccid ears and drooping emblems of Newport's pieces, comic-book luminaries are perhaps laid bare; having finally found human acceptance, they can be as vulnerable as they please. Through May 9 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-615-5278 (www.laumeier.org). Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. (Outdoor grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to a half-hour past sunset).

Old Media/Old News Yesterday's headlines are re-presented in traditional (old) media by a group of local and international artists in this inventive elegy to the death of print journalism. Idiosyncratic, methodical processes seek to replace or reclaim the generative grind of tangible print: Martin Brief fills in all the O's that appear on the front page of the daily newspaper in hyper-minimalist maps of dots that suggest a concealed but perhaps arbitrary code. Writer Austin Kleon uses a Sharpie to black out the majority of text on a page, suggesting that what's left reveals poetic insight into otherwise prosaic reportage. Lisa Bulowsky recollects her "flash bulb" memories of historic events that occurred during her lifetime, printing half-childlike, half-harrowing abstractions of her experience with otherwise remote traumas. And in the ultimate feat of sustained meticulousness, Xiang-Yang's Newsreel employs entire rolls of Scotch tape to peel off the printed faces of celebrities and other media-saturated notables, creating reams of ephemeral, repetitive portraits that resemble unspooled film stock of pummeling propaganda. Fact, here, becomes marginalia, while emotional and personal experiences surface as all that's most articulate, memorable or worth remembering. The exhibit also includes work by Michelle Forsyth and Jihoon Park. Through March 27 at the Luminary Center for the Arts, 4900 Reber Place; 314-807-5984 or www.theluminaryarts.com. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Sean Landers: 1991-1994, Improbable History This survey of relentlessly self-dissecting and blogosphere-portentous paintings, videos, sculptures and photographs by the New York-based conceptual artist Landers makes every attempt to get a hold of that elusive quality known as sincerity. Covering massive canvases, full legal pads and several years' worth of calendar pages with hand-scrawled text, Landers iterates himself as a desperately ambitious but ever-human everyman, a kind of modern-day St. Augustine confessing his trials with art and life in a mode of unedited profusion that traditional social courtesy was established to discourage. There's a sense of rigor in Landers' ability to tolerate himself, which is mirrored by the viewer's tolerance for the work — a rigor that most have perhaps become accustomed to through the sudden ubiquity of social media, modern memoirs and all the other contemporary variations of self-advertisement/acceptable voyeurism now available. In light of this "new normal" (term courtesy of Dick Cheney), Landers comes across as less transgressive than strangely classical — he uses paint and canvas, he's apologetic, and he references Blake, Narcissus and the lyric impulse. But is he sincere? He doesn't even claim to know. Critical to motivating his furious desire to excavate earnestness is Landers' fraught identity as a working-class Irish Catholic, a fact that makes him incapable of escaping the crushing guilt of having committed the ultimate transgression: becoming an artist. Also showing: Stephen Prina: Modern Movie Pop, an elusive multimedia installation that's half snow-drenched, half-rainbowed, with flickering images of winter and bright, wavering watercolors that suggest an encrypted message continually slipping between blithe naiveté and the fiercely cerebral. Through April 11 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Sharon Lockhart: Lunch Break This suite of large-scale photographs and two film installations is a sustained meditation on the ecology of the industrial working class. The product of a year spent at General Dynamics-owned Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, Lockhart's exhibition catalogues a world of intimate ritual and discretely elegant detail. Lunch boxes stand in as portraits of the assorted workers, the well-worn items bearing emblems of their owners, their photographic presentation having all of the poise and saturated symbolism of Dutch still lifes. The films extend that observational attunement; Lunch Break follows the main artery of the factory at a pace slower than breathing, the immersive effect of which renders the space nearly abstract. Equally atmospheric, Exit follows the workers daily leave-taking on five consecutive days — a world punctuated by lunch pails, swinging in primary hues from obscured hands as they march beneath the ironwork of an underpass, the mass but unhurried movement suggesting exodus and elegy alike. Through April 19 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth & Skinker boulevards (on the campus of Washington University); 314-935-4523 (www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu). Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (closed Tue., open till 8 p.m. Fri.).

Tim Curtis: See How My Mind Works Small handmade chalkboards bearing chalk-written personal proclamations wallpaper the gallery space and accost the viewer with the artist's internal monologue. The elementary-school visual vernacular, combined with the puerile effusions of the unedited mind, make for a vexing experience. Maybe it's the myriad generalizations working in concert to craft a voice of plainspoken authenticity — from the schoolhouse aesthetic to the cynical wit of bumper-sticker clichés — but the show manages to engender a sense of disgust for all things popularly deemed "common." If the raw truth is that we Americans are petty, porn-loving, sexist, self-pitying, materialistic, superficial, depressed, addicted and fundamentally uncourageous — well, then, perhaps we deserve to perpetuate such anti-heroics by chuckling at our "humanness" and applauding ourselves for our tough but cute honesty. Through April 18 at the Craft Alliance (Grand Center), 501 North Grand Boulevard; 314-534-7528 or www.craftalliance.org. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.

Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark The late New York-area artist who used entire blighted buildings as his sculptural material could not have found a more apt (temporary) home. The architectural stock Matta-Clark repurposed finds innumerable analogues beyond the Pulitzer's walls; each instance serves as a brief visual lesson in the aesthetics of simple dwelling spaces. Like archaeological strata, the layers of linoleum, plaster, wood beams, shingles, wallpaper and paint attest to the intricacy of the quotidian and the accretive elegance of all things driven by necessity. The message seems to be: Look closely and let nothing be taken for granted. Beyond the diffusions of daylight so scrupulously choreographed by the museum's celebrated architecture, siting this survey in St. Louis does a service to both artist and city. Matta-Clark was an innovator in the synthesis of architecture, activism and art — a catalyst of exactly the sort this town could use. Through June 5 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850 or www.pulitzerarts.org. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

Yinka Shonibare: Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play Placing his signature life-size mannequins, clothed in Dutch wax-printed cotton (otherwise known as "African print"), in the period rooms on the museum's lower level, the notable British-Nigerian conceptual artist re-illuminates these fossilized moments of material history with fresh paradoxes. It is not Shonibare's figures — child-size, eerily static...and guillotined — that are the focal curiosities here, but rather the cultural incoherence of the historic rooms they inhabit. You suddenly notice how the quintessential American, English and French living spaces here are in reality odd collections of cultural artifacts: an ancient Greek krater in a British country manor; Qing dynasty vases and a Russian carpet in a South Carolina parlor. Ethnic authenticity is a fallacy, it seems, and social status a mere material import — validated by stuff made or acquired from any place (and time) other than one's own. The installation's multicultural theme may feel tiredly familiar, but the exhibit succeeds in making its point fresh. Household furnishings never appeared more bizarre. Through July 5 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (open till 9 p.m. Fri.)

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